Some lucky people are born with a GPS implanted in their brains. Others are DC, directionally challenged. Guess which group claims me as a charter member? I'm hopeless when it comes to directions, as are most members of my family. Whenever we go somewhere new, we resemble the Twits in a Monty Python sketch, each person darting off in a completely different direction. (Even more tragically this sometimes happens in places we're familiar with.)
When I wrote the first draft of my middle-grade novel, my dysfunctional affliction kicked in as I went about creating my setting. My story takes place in a fictional New England coastal town, loosely based on several I've visited. I blithely plunked down buildings, parks, and historical landmarks wherever I took a fancy, with no regard to how they stood in relation to one another. Now that I'm revising, I'm finding that this carefree approach isn't working. I'm as lost in my fictional world as I am in the real one--with no GPS to help me.
My solution has been to create a map to help me navigate my fictional landscape. A map forces me to decide where a house or statue or cemetery is actually located. I've also added roads and streets. Now when my character drives or bikes to town, I know where she's going and how long it will take her to get there. Another benefit is that I must name these places.
Since I first learned to read, I've always enjoyed fiction books with hand-drawn maps. Early favorites include Winnie the Pooh
, The Wind in the Willows
, and My Father's Dragon
. Treasure Island
, The Phantom Tollbooth
, and The Hobbit
also have amazing maps. But not all maps feature fantastical worlds. For instance, there's William Faulkner's map of Yoknatawpha County and Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. Mystery novels sometimes include maps or floor plans. I'm thinking specifically of Agatha Christie, Phoebe Atwood Taylor, Arthur Upfield, Ellis Peters, and Nevada Barr.
For an absolutely wonderful post on the subject, check out Maps of Fictional Worlds
. You'll find oodles of fantastic links to all kinds of maps, from childhood classics to adult contemporary novels. You can get lost there for hours. So bring a GPS!
I recently completed the first draft of a middle-grade novel, a ghost story, and I'm now in the process of revising it. So far I'm stuck. On the prologue. I've been endlessly changing it, writing draft after draft. But does the book even need a prologue?
I've always kind of liked prologues. They're the literary equivalent of a glass of wine or warm bath before lovemaking, there to help set the mood. On the net, though, prologues don't have such a good rep. Many people admit to skipping them and diving into Chapter One. Not me. I like to start at the beginning to make sure I'm not missing anything. That said, if the prologue lags, I might put down the book and pick up another.
I turned to the internet to get the scoop on these literary teasers. Here are some tips I gleaned from my search:
* Think about the purpose of your prologue:
Is it to provide atmosphere and set the scene? If so, be aware that many editors, agents, and writers suggest ditching your prologue if that's all it does. According to these folks, a successful prologue should add something new.
To add backstory that you don't want clogging up the first chapter? Be careful, though, not to overload the prologue. A successful prologue should be dramatic, not an information dump.
To add a character's viewpoint that won't be appearing in the novel itself? This to me seems the most compelling reason and it's the reason why I'm including one in my novel.
*If you do choose a prologue, keep it short. No one wants to plow through pages and pages before Chapter One even begins.
* Don't overwrite, and keep to the same overall style as the rest of your novel. Yes, it may be more atmospheric, but it should still be similar in style and tone of voice. A prologue written in flowery prose followed by a folksy "aw shucks" voice won't cut it.
For more advice on writing prologues, check out the following sites:The Prologue: When to Use One, How to Write OneStory Elements: Using a PrologueWriting Prologues: Do They Work?Pub Rants: Why Prologues Often Don't Work
Browsing the new book section of my local library the other day, I spotted a collection of essays and stories featuring writers in my area, the majority of whom had attended the same workshop. Curious about local talent, I checked it out. It was an interesting read, but not because of the quality of the work. None were horrible, just numbingly boring and surprisingly similar given that they were men and women of different ages and experiences.
I skimmed through the beginning of each one, and when nothing caught my interest, skipped to the next. There were more than a dozen stories in all, and I only read one through to the end. It wasn't perfect by any means. A personal essay relating the author's experiences with cooking to her three marriages, it rambled at times, wasn't structured particularly well, and its point was far from original. So why did I read it through? The writer had a distinct and original voice, one that drew me in and made me want to know more about her. It wasn't a sophisticated voice, but it was authentic. The writer was telling me about her world as she experienced it.
The other stories, while more polished, were not as compelling. Why not? My guess is that those writers were striving to be literary. Their first concern was to impress their readers, to razzel-dazzle them with fancy words and obscure allusions. The writer of the story I finished wasn't concerned with that. (Interestingly, she was one of the few writers in the collection without a MFA degree.) She just wanted to tell her story, and so she got on with it. She wrote simply, but honestly. When I came to the last page I felt as if I had gotten to know someone new.
So what is the moral? Is there one? What I learned from reading that collection was to listen to my inner voice and not be so self-conscious about making mistakes. Too often I try to be smart-alecky and a show-off. It's safer than saying what you really feel, especially if your thoughts might not meet with approval. I didn't learn to swim until I was in my twenties, and long after I was able to paddle my awkward way across the length of the pool, I clung close to the sides. There comes a day, though, when you have to head out of the shallows and into deep waters. Sure, you'll falter, but ultimately, you'll become a much better swimmer. Unless, of course, you drown.